Thursday, April 17, 2008

Smart People

It’s been a while since we’ve had a good Dennis Quaid performance. Seems all he needed was a beard, disheveled hair, a small gut and some notes from Philip Seymour Hoffman characters. In Smart People, Quaid anchors a talented cast with his restrained, cranky performance, playing a restrained, cranky English professor who has given up on most everything and still doesn’t seem to care.
His Lawrence Wetherhold is a man trapped by his own dullness after the death of his wife. He doesn’t care about his students, he writes seemingly boring novels, and he under appreciates his kids, mostly his quick-witted, homemaker daughter played with familiar comic flare by Ellen Page.
But this is no Juno, you won’t get those liberal minded ideals that drove Page to an Oscar nomination, instead she offers an insight to a smart, cunning, young Republican genius that couldn’t stray farther from that pregnant 16 year old.
After Wetherhold suffers a seizure due to an injury, he is advised to not drive for six months. In comes his hilarious adopted brother played by the marvelous Thomas Haden Church. While Church seems to echo his Sideways character, you won’t be able to stop yourself from laughing when he gets Page stoned and drunk.
Sarah Jessica Parker plays a nurse (and former student) of Quaid’s and a May-December relationship ensues.
The road to happiness is far from easy when these neurotic characters are involved, but first time director Noam Murro executes the sharp words by Mark Poirier so refreshingly that the audience is given a nice reprieve from the cinema Spring cleaning.
This is a simple, wildly amusing film that will make you laugh, but not necessarily cry. The performances from each member of the cast is spot on, but it’s Church and Page who steal the show. Church’s career was recently revived and he has been hitting all the right notes since, and the young Page is well on her way to becoming one of the most identifiable actors of her generation. A-

Street Kings

Maybe it’s those boyish good looks, maybe it’s that hair, maybe it’s the Hawaiian-stoner voice, but you just cannot take Keanu Reeves seriously. Put him in a surfer movie like Point Break or play him as a dim-witted guy who has no idea what the hell is going on (The Matrix) and he does alright. But as a crooked LA cop who suddenly spawns a conscience, he never really hits his mark.
Street Kings is like most of the other movies writer-director David Ayer has made. Lines in this film are taken directly from his penned script Training Day, not to mention themes and general plot concepts from Dark Blue, S.W.A.T. and Harsh Times. The man is fascinated with corrupt cops, but he keeps telling the tale in the same way, which is never all too affective.
Where these films falter is in their main characters. With the exception of Christian Bale’s brilliant performance in Harsh Times, Ayer’s main guys can never hit the moral complexity of, say, The Shield’s Vic Mackey or The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty. Rather, characters like Reeves’ come off as whiney puppies, too scared to leave the litter.
The tired plot has been recycled dozens of times. Reeves’ Tom Ludlow begins to grow a conscience after his old partner is gunned down execution style. Forrest Whitaker (why try so hard?) is his evil-ways Captain who wants the dirty money from the bad guys he puts down. Who can Ludlow trust? The snooty IA detective (Hugh Laurie playing House without the limp) his new partner (Chris Evans, what’s with the hair?) or his new girlfriend?
Halfway through, you won’t care. And if you have any sense, you’ll figure out the “surprise” ending long before the characters do. The only refreshingly thing about Street Kings is the scene-stealing appearance of rapper Common, who unlike any of his musical colleges is on his way to making a clear transformation into a bonafide screen presence. C

Shine a Light: in IMAX

To see a movie on an IMAX screen is to get the bigger and better aspect of a film. You pay extra for the huge screen and booming sound. For the first 15 minutes of Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s new concert documentary on the Rolling Stones, audience members were restless.
The image on the monstrous screen was, for some reason, reduced to the size of a typical movie theatre screen. Speculation was in the air, and it was hard to concentrate on Scorsese, battling with Mick Jagger on what the song list is going to be and other fouled concert preparations.

Suddenly, as the concert begins, Keith Richards strums the first few chords of the masterful “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and as Jagger comes running out on stage the image on the screen expanded to its full capacity. We were all tricked, purposely by the genius of Scorsese, who takes time to deliver such marvelous thrills, spending wondrous chills right up our spines.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie does not live up to the high intensity of that moment. Jagger makes an effort to play lesser-known songs by the Stones. Don’t expect “Paint it Black” “Gimme Shelter” “Satisfaction” or many other Forty Licks hits. Shine a Light is a film for true Stones fans, and Scorsese is okay with that.
Great appearances from Jack White, Christina Aguilera and Buddy Guy keep the film entertaining. But the highlights are when Scorsese takes the time to dive back into the history of the Stones, via old interviews and news clips.
As usual for a Scorsese picture, the fast paced cinematography and sharp editing are highlighted. The director himself seems not to know what will come next, but damn if he isn’t prepared for it, hitting all the best angles.
For the two days in 2006 when the Stones played at the Beacon Theater in New York City, Scorsese was there to capture it all. From Jagger’s hyper-active, almost erotic dance moves, to Richards’ devilish grin and magnificent plucking of the guitar, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. The fact that these men are now in their 60s makes you appreciate the show that much more, or as Richards’ tells the crowd, “It’s good to see you all, it’s good to see anybody.” B+

Leatherheads

George Clooney likes to make movies of the past. His first directorial effort spanned the 60s and 70s in telling the career of troubled TV show host Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Next he tackled the 50s newsroom (rather brilliantly) with Good Night and Good Luck. Now we get the mid 1920s, during the rise of pro football, which he presents with comic jingle in Leatherheads.

Clooney takes a break from his seriousness (Michael Clayton, Syriana) and returns to his wacky-comedy alter ego (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty) that he seems to enjoy so much. The problem with Leatherheads is that he embraces his light-hearted flare too much, leaving us with an afterthought of a film.

Clooney is Dodge Connelly, one of the few remaining men in pro football that take the sport seriously. To spice things up he recruits a star college football (a sport that is wildly popular) player who also happens to be a war hero. John Krasinski doesn’t dive far from his Office Jim persona but he brings a little to the table. I have high hopes for Krasinski; he just needs a role with a little more edge.

Renée Zellweger is the sassy sports writer who comes between the two men, playing both sides and falling for each of them. She spits fire at Clooney, who throws it right back in the form of tired, reused lines that they hope come off as clever.

The football scenes don’t add much excitement, neither do the constant, over-the-top bar fights. But Clooney isn’t going for blood and tears; he wants to make people laugh with his throwback.
According to IMDB, Clooney will next direct a dark comedy that was written by the Coen brothers. This could be good for him, leave out the zany antics and get the shockingly offensive side of comedy. C

Saturday, April 5, 2008

21

If you look at your cineplex’s marquee, there isn’t a whole lot to pay attention to. And while 21 isn’t a showstopper, it may be the most entertaining time you can have at the movies right now.

Director Robert Luketic ditches his chick-flick tendencies (the man has done Legally Blonde, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and Monster-in-Law) in an attempt to give us a youthful, refreshing take on what is becoming a tired genre.

Filmmakers seem to be obsessed with this idea of card playing on screen. There have been a slew of these films over the past few years, and 21 isn’t much different from any of them. Loosely adapted from Ben Mezrich's best-selling book Bringing Down the House, 21 is the semi-true story of an MIT genius who was recruited by a teacher and fellow students to lead their operation of counting cards in black jack.

The movie doesn’t really explain how to count cards, but however it’s done, these kids seem to know what they’re doing. Every weekend they fly to Vegas to make (not steal or cheat, counting cards isn’t illegal) money, to fund their recent lavish lifestyles.

Promising newcomer Jim Sturgess plays math prodigy Ben who gets the attention of one of his professors, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) by using his wit and timid charm. Rosa lets Ben in on his little secret, which includes four other MIT students. And soon they are off to the strip, raking in the money by the thousands.

Sturgess (Across the Universe) seems to be fusing together two of Matt Damon’s best characters. He has the charismatic ferocity of Will Hunting from, you guessed it, Good Will Hunting and the card playing skills and accountability of Mike McDermott (from Rounders). While I doubt this is intentional, Sturgess doesn’t sweat at playing the lead, always keeping us interested and focused. Spacey has a great time as Rosa, screaming at his pupils one minute and then staring them down, speaking calmly with much vindication the next. There is nothing like a steel-cold gaze from the eyes of Kevin Spacey.

Kate Bosworth sizzles as the beauty of the group, and the new love interest of Ben. Her Jill acts as Ben’s consciousness when he gets out of control. And there in lies the problem. 21, like most rags-to-riches stories, falls victim to the predictable arch of having everything, then losing it all. Some films can pull this off (Casino comes to mind) but Luketic is no Scorsese. Instead, we get bored watching the characters lose all their money, only to set up one final, climatic score. Laurence Fishburne as a strictly old-school security enforcer helps make the final showdown more exciting, but in the end 21 is probably exactly what you expect it to be. But right now, that ain’t such a bad thing. B

Stop-Loss

Over 80,000 U.S. soldiers have carried out their contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, been told they were going home, and then suddenly, against their will, have been sent right back into the fight for an undisclosed amount of time. This issue of being stop-lost is becoming more prevalent as conflicts in the Middle East rage on, and not enough people enlist.

It’s been nine years since director Kimberly Peirce has made a feature, not since her strikingly bold debut of Boy’s Don’t Cry. When her brother enlisted in the military after 9/11, she found inspiration in a harsh reality that lies in the fine print of an Army contract.

Ryan Phillippe plays Brandon King, a soldier who has just come home from Iraq, only to find that he is, involuntarily, being sent back. Rejecting the idea, he treks cross country, in an attempt to resolve the issue and clear up the mistake.

The men who served with him remain in their Texas town, fighting deep internal struggles of post-traumatic stress disorder, not being able to let go of the dehumanizing images they’ve seen.
Peirce is fully capable of delivering shocking images that startle yet somehow move us, she proved that with Boy’s Don’t Cry. The problem with Stop-Loss is that it aims too high. Each character gives long-winded, heartfelt speeches that often don’t hit their mark. I’m not quite sure whose fault it is, because the words feel right, the camera is well placed, but some of the action is forced.

Phillippe (much better in Crash and Flags of Our Fathers) doesn’t seem half as committed as his character is to the idea of becoming free from war. Phillippe casts his melodramatic tendencies just a bit too much, making us a little bored. Channing Tatum plays Brandon’s best friend Steve. While Tatum delivers a decent supporting turn, he isn’t given much to do except be an imposing, male-dominant figure that we’ve seen him as before (and that he pulled off in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints). This kid has talent; he just needs the material to prove it.

That’s the bad, and if you look for it, you’ll find some good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is another soldier from their group who is having the most trouble forgetting what he saw. Gordon-Levitt’s descent into madness by diving head first into a bottle is raw, real and emotionally powerful. He has proved himself a God of independent film, giving stunning performances in Manic, Mysterious Skin, Brick and The Lookout. He steals the show in Stop-Loss, his face one of vengeful regret. I only wish he was given more screen time. This is one of the finest actors of his generation; he’ll be around for a long, long time.

Supporting turns by Australian actress Abbie Cornish (Candy), Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood), and Timothy Olyphant do not go unnoticed, but they aren’t enough to keep the movie from its repetitiveness. Peirce manages to shock (a bloody war battle could be admired for its authenticity), but she cannot escape the unsympathetic trend that audiences simply aren’t connecting with these Iraq-war films.

For my money, I’d put Phillippe in a supporting role and let the whole film rest on Gordon-Levitt’s shoulders. He has carried movies before, and he has pulled it off each time. The film would have no problem hitting its emotional arch’s, if Gordon-Levitt was doing the screaming. B-